The Rev. James J. Scahill's Call for the Resignation of Pope Benedict XVI Meets Silence

By Jack Flynn
The Republican
May 8, 2010

EAST LONGMEADOW - He is a whistleblower in a Roman collar, the conscience of a Catholic diocese demoralized by two decades of sex abuse scandals and conspiracies to cover them up.

Or, he is a zealot so committed to exposing the clergy abuse crisis that he loses sight of his larger duty to the church.

Since 2002, public opinion has vacillated on the subject of the Rev. James J. Scahill, the small-town pastor who became an international media attraction last month after urging Pope Benedict XVI to deal more forcefully with sex abuse cases or resign.

Within hours of prodding the Holy Father from the pulpit of St. Michael's Church, the priest's views were breaking news on national news networks, the British Broadcasting Corp. and the Cable News Network, which is broadcast at the Vatican.

Then, silence.

"I feel we've done enough," said the 63-year-old native of Springfield's predominantly-Irish Hungry Hill neighborhood, reflecting on his media celebrity. "This is not about Father Scahill. To say anymore would detract from the message, which is speaking truth to power."

If other priests across the country shared Scahill's views, they have kept it to themselves.

James J. Scahill before start of Mass at St. Michael\'s Church in April, 2010. Scahill called for the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI during an April Mass.

Not one has come forward, leaving Scahill and the Rev. Thomas Faucher, of Boise, Idaho, as the only priests broaching the idea of Vatican regime change, an Internet search shows. The Idaho priest called for the pope's retirement a week before Scahill, but without the media buzz.

The lack of response has been a disappointment, even if Scahill's stand was nothing short of heroic, says Peter C. Pollard, of Hatfield, coordinator of the local chapter of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests, a clergy abuse survivor group.

"We were hoping more people would come forward maybe three or four in the next week" said Pollard.

It is unclear whether Scahill's media retreat is voluntary or imposed by the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, the Most Rev. Timothy A. McDonnell, or perhaps a higher authority.

One thing is clear: Scahill has not been easily muzzled in the past.

In 2002, despite warnings form then-Bishop Thomas L. Dupre, Scahill refused to rein in his criticism of the diocese's continuing financial support of the Rev. Richard R. Lavigne, the convicted molester of two altar boys and suspect in the murder of a third in 1972.

Adding to the conflict, the East Longmeadow pastor insisted that Dupre had acknowledged that one of his predecessors, the late bishop Christopher J. Weldon, destroyed legally sensitive documents in the years since 13-year-old altar boy Daniel Croteau's unsolved murder.

For two years, the bishop and priest engaged in a rare clash of wills, played out in public for all of Greater Springfield to see.

When it was over, Dupre had lost forced to resign after being accused of molesting two boys in the 1980s, including one whose family had gone to Scahill for help.

Still, taking on the local bishop is one thing; taking on the Vatican on CNN is something else, as Scahill's supporters are quick to acknowledge.

"This isn't something he did with any relish," said clergy abuse activist Pollard. "He just believed that it had to be done."

The Rev. James J. Scahill greets Ruth Swayger of East Longmeadow outside St. Michael\'s Church in East Longmeadow after Mass in June

Being a maverick was hardly his goal when Scahill graduated from Cathedral High School in 1965, or Mount St. Mary's College of Theology in Maryland in 1969, or when he was ordained by Weldon in 1974.

If anything, the priest was slow to realize the dimensions of the abuse crisis, something that puzzles his supporters and critics today.

Early parish assignments in Greenfield, Lee and Springfield offered no hints of his taste for confrontation, nor did his stint as pastor at St. Mary's in East Springfield, where Lavigne had been stationed when Croteau's body was found floating in the Chicopee River in 1972,

By October, 1991, Scahill's new parish was rocked by Lavigne's arrest on child rape charges in Shelburne Falls, where the priest had been reassigned and effectively promoted after leaving St. Mary's.

The arrest not only rekindled suspicions about Lavigne's role in the altar boy murder, but also memories about rectory sleepovers and weekend trips organized by Lavigne for altar boys at the parish.

Recalling that period in a deposition given for a 2003 lawsuit against the diocese by one of Lavigne's victims, Scahill sounded oddly detached, pointing out that his parish's concerns were fleeting.

"After a couple of months, things seemed to subside. There was no real rage. . . . The spirit in the parish was good, so I just went with that," he said.

Under questioning from a diocesan lawyer, Scahill said when two males approached him with complaints about Lavigne's conduct, he suggested that they go to the police or the diocese.

"I apologized to them in the name of the church and the priests that they claimed. I just tried to be supportive to them."

Asked why he never alerted the diocese, Scahill responded: "OK. The diocese never came to me. I was a young pastor. They never came to me asking how I was doing because it was like a hailstorm there for a while."

"I have a support network of friends, and I guess I fed off their support during those couple of months of some difficult sessions."

It would be nearly 10 more years before Scahill would emerge as a critic of the diocese's failure to confront the clergy abuse crisis, a role that would leave him with little patience for his press-shy colleagues.

While nobody doubts Scahill's commitment to clergy abuse victims, his scolding of other priests can sound strident and self-righteous. In 2004, Scahill was given the Priest of Integrity Award by the Voice of the Faithful, a group formed in response to clergy abuse scandals.

In his acceptance speech for the award, the priest said most Catholic clerics have acted like "myopic company puppets instead of being men. They are simply readers, in most instances, of the Gospel."

Later that night at a press conference, he said church leaders were "spiritually dead" and were perpetrating "an evil that exceeds the Mafia."

The Rev. William A. Pomerleau, pastor of Our Lady of Sacred Heart and a writer for Catholic Observer, says he admires Scahill's passion for fighting injustice and disputes suggestions that the priest has any personal agenda.

But the East Longmeadow pastor sometimes oversimplifies complicated issues, especially ones that play well in the media, Pomerleau said.

Pomerleau noted that the New York Times and the Boston Globe were alerted to Scahill's sermons on April 10 and 11, guaranteeing that his remarks would find a national audience.

"I don't think it's the place of a parish priest in Western Massachusetts to start a movement for the pope to resign, and I don't think Jim thinks that either," Pomerleau said. "But somebody called the New York Times," he added.

Pollard said it wasn't the priest who called the media, but would not say who did.

James J. Scahill exits his deposition at a Springfield law office in September, 2003. He is accompanied by his lawyer, Mary E. McNally.

Given Scahill's reputation for compassion, it is difficult to disagree with his tactics without appearing to be an apologist for church, Pomerleau and other church officials have said.

"I think he's outspoken, and sometimes imprudent in what he says," Pomerleau said. "But, he is sincere in his beliefs."

A harsher response came from Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, which denounced the sermons as slanderous and demanded an apology.

The Media Research Center also weighed in on the television coverage, noting that the networks never pointed out that Scahill was honored by Voice of the Faithful, which it described as a pressure group pushing to end celibacy and backing other liberal reforms in the church.

None of that has shaken the confidence of Scahill's own parishioners.

"Nobody listens to them," said John Bowen, 74, of Longmeadow, referring to the Catholic Action League, which bashed the church for allowing U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy's funeral Mass last year to be held in a Boston church.

To Bowen and others, the real measure of Scahill's service is his devotion to St. Michael's parish, and the many small acts of kindness that never get publicized. A few years ago, the priest left $500 at the rectory for a clergy abuse victim with no money to buy Christmas presents for his family.

"I don't think people realize how much he means to this parish," Bowen said.

In the 2003 deposition, Scahill spoke of his loyalty to St. Michael's and his fraying bonds with other priests.

The turning point came in 2002, with the decision to withhold parish donations to protest support for Lavigne, Scahill explained.

"I knew it would be forever changed for me. And I've got priests that I used to socialize with for over 30 years who don't call me, don't talk to me," Scahill said.

"When I go to ( diocese leadership council ) meetings, do you think it's a walk in the park? You can cut the tension with a chain saw," he said.

Asked what he gains by criticizing the diocese, Scahill responded: "Well, I have nothing to gain except the ability to live at peace with myself."

Moments later, he added: "I'm a parish priest. I'll just continue my priestly work and the sooner I can only do that the better off I'll feel. I just want this to go away."

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